Steven Pinker

How did you become a writer?

An editor at the university press that published my second scholarly book said, "You don't write like an academic." He meant it as a compliment.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

In graduate school I devoured style manuals, including Strunk & White's The Elements of Style and Theodore Bernstein's The Careful Writer. My advisor, the great psycholinguist Roger Brown, was a graceful and witty writer, and I have long enjoyed the writing of other stylish psychologists such as George Miller, Herbert Simon, and of course William James. I have also enjoyed the writings of the many evolutionary biologists who mastered the art of writing, including John Maynard Smith, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins.

When and where do you write?

When I work on a book I write maniacally -- night and day, seven days a week, for blocks of time as long as my academic schedule allows. I write everywhere, including planes, trains, and automobiles, but my favorite location is the house I share with Rebecca Goldstein in Truro, Cape Cod. 

What are you working on now?

My next book will be called The Sense of Style: A Manual for the 21st Century. It will translate discoveries from linguistics and cognitive science into advice on style, clarity, and usage.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Only when I am on a tight deadline to write an op-ed for a newspaper, never when I work on a long book. As Pascal wrote, "If I had more time, I'd make it shorter."

What’s your advice to new writers?

Learn a bit of linguistics. Put yourself in the shoes of your readers by showing drafts to people who are like your readers. Write many drafts, separated by a long enough interval so that your writing will seem strange to yourself. Savor passages of writing you like and try to reverse-engineer them, figuring out how the writer made the passage so good. And after 2014, buy and read The Sense of Style: A Manual for the 21st Century.

Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research on language and cognition, which has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the American Psychological Association, and the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. He has also received several teaching awards and many prizes for his eight books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate. He has been named Humanist of the Year, and has been listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” He is currently Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and writes frequently for The New York Times, Time, The New Republic, and other publications. His most recent book is The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.